Filming the Religion Conflict in Israel: Orthodox and Secular Jews

Israeli society, with its diverse culture, offers an endless source of inspiration for films and documentaries. In order to develop storylines and aid pre production activity, Biblical Productions has gathered some useful background information on the divisions present within Israeli society.

In Israel there are certain events, locations or incidents that always create tension in the air between orthodox and secular Jews. This is an interesting topic for filming in Israel and this article will focus on the religious divide within Israeli society.

A Diverse Society

The Jewish religion is ancient, dating back 6,000 years. It consists of hundreds of rituals, obligations and commandments. There are those who choose to devote their lives to observing these, others who keep very few and finally, those who are those situated somewhere in between. Within the label ‘religious’ there are even further strands; Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Modern Orthodox, Haredi to name but a few and within these…. yet more sects and offshoots.

These varying traditions and levels of observation stand at the center of a dispute that has been in existence for hundreds of years and has escalated since the establishment of the Jewish State in 1948. Israeli society, like any other, has evolved and people with very different lifestyles, interests and beliefs live in very close proximity to one another.

At times political or social events light the spark of conflict and in recent years the religious divide has reached new heights. The conflict between the extreme end of orthodoxy and the secular has been clearly visible within a two-kilometer radius within the heart of Jerusalem every Friday evening for the past few months.

The Ultra Orthodox

The Geula neighborhood is one of the ultra-orthodox areas of Jerusalem. Each night men in traditional attire, consisting of black caftans, traditional fur hats and sporting long ear-locks, walk along the quiet streets, returning from their evening prayers. In adherence to Shabbat observation, cars are not permitted to travel along these streets on the Sabbath. It seems as though time has stopped in a Polish "Shtetl” (small Jewish village) in the nineteenth century.

The women await the return of their husbands, their many children milling around them. They are dressed in modest clothing, covering all parts of the body. Married women cover their heads, some with headscarves and others wearing wigs. They stand outside their houses, many talking in Yiddish. Hebrew may be the language of the country, but it is also the "holy language, the language of the scriptures”, and thus, it is forbidden by their sects for use in everyday conversation.

The Secular

Less than two kilometers down the road is Jerusalem’s ‘Russian Compound’. The atmosphere in the Russian compound on a Friday night couldn’t be more different. It is the center of Jerusalem’s secular nightlife, and scores of pubs and bars line the narrow streets. Secular Israeli youths intermingle in the streets, wearing the latest fashions and constantly chatting on their mobile phones. The area could be anywhere in the modern world. They sit drinking, laughing and dancing as contemporary music blares out of loudspeakers.

The Roots of the Feud

Sharing both religion and nationality, these two cultures live side by side in close proximity, but this coexistence is fuelling endless hostility.

The feud dates back to nineteenth century Europe, where Jews lived in small, isolated villages. As there was little interaction between members of each village and communication was limited, different sects began to carry out different traditions and customs. Jewish villagers followed varying spiritual leaders, resulting in conflicting interpretations of Judaism. An additional divide came with both social and technological modernization and the dispersion of Jews across the globe, as they fled persecution.

Jews found that in order to survive and prosper, they had to assimilate. Many neglected the traditional attire, felt compelled to work on the Sabbath and their integration into wider society lead them to feel that many of the customs and commandments were outdated.

An Ultra Orthodox View of Zionism

Perhaps the most serious divide came with the birth of the Zionist movement. Zionism was, and is, perceived by certain sects of the ultra-orthodox as a principal, fundamental sin. In their eyes the Jewish homeland should not exist until the Messiah arrives. They believe that once the Messiah is here the country will be run according to strict Jewish law. Much of their animosity towards secular Jews stems from their belief that the Messiah will not come until the secular cease their transgressions. To them, Jews who do not observe strict Jewish law and inhabit the Holy Land are considered to be an abomination.

The dispute as to who should govern Israel began with the birth of the Zionist movement, which called for a Jewish state in the traditional Jewish Homeland, then Palestine. With the founding of the State in 1948 David Ben-Gurion proposed legislation creating a "status-quo” between the religious and secular Jews. This gave the religious control over issues of daily life, including marriage, funerals, divorce and the question of who is considered a Jew.

This "status-quo” affects the whole population of Israel. There is no public transport on the Sabbath and the vast majority of shops are closed. Whilst for some this is in keeping with living in the Jewish State, for others it is inconvenient and outdated. These matters clearly illustrate the difference in ideology and interpretation of Judaism.

Demonstrations in the streets of Jerusalem

Rows of black coated ultra-Orthodox Jews are demonstrating here. They are against this main artery of Jerusalem being open on the Sabbath. This street has become a symbol of the conflict between secular and orthodox. It is clear that the outcome of this struggle will set a precedent for future conflicts.

The Ultra-Orthodox see themselves as the ‘keepers of Judaism.’ They believe that redemption will come to the Jews only if all Jews keep the laws (halacha) of G-d. They feel strongly about their beliefs and do not deviate from them in any way.

The ‘Two Sides’

This long running family feud within the Jewish community has reached explosive proportions. The tensions between the Orthodox-Haredim, and the Secular-Zionist have reached destructive levels over the past few years. Each side has its own issues and its own solutions. The escalation of these differences has created debate throughout Israel.

The secular Jews believe that their freedom and rights are being eroded and do not want to see the State run on increasingly religious lines.

To the secular, the solution is simple; the Haredim should not control secular laws, there needs to be a separation between religion and politics.

To the Religious, the solution is also simple; if every Jew follows halacha, there will be no problem and perhaps the Messiah will come sooner.

Is there a solution to this incredible rift? Can these two worlds live side by side in peace, or as some say, will this increasing division within Israeli society turn into continuing and escalating civil unrest?

An Israeli Film Producer’s Perspective

Sharon Schaveet, producer and expert in film production in Israel, comments, "I think the dispute is one of the most interesting illustrations of modern Israeli society and serves to inform our understanding of the dynamics taking place within Israel today.”

How to Approach This Story from a Film Making Perspective

She continues, "Filming the religious and secular in Israel can be carried out in several ways but the single most important factor is not to be biased. My approach would be to interview rabbis who I consider to be knowledgeable on the historical and modern slants to this story and who understand the culture within this layer of religious society.”

"The story presents many unique film locations in Israel; beautiful shots of the streets and houses in ultra orthodox neighborhoods – presenting a snapshot which appears to be from times gone by.”

"From the secular point of view I would film activist groups; people who demonstrate and carry forward the battle on behalf of the secular. Their clothing, speech and views all provide a direct contradiction to the religious scenes.

"Finally, I would speak to politicians who have dedicated their careers to developing a cohesive Jewish state. Historical footage showing the building and modernization of Israel could also be inserted into the story.”
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Finally, I would look for the human story behind the scenes. For example, I would search for secular people who could explain to us the deep controversy from their perspective and explain how it affects their lives.

One way of illustrating the changing face of Jerusalem neighborhoods would be to go to places previously considered to be secular but following the opening of a religious yeshiva (learning institution) the orthodox community started to buy property, turning the neighborhood from secular to religious. I would film one of the secular families who had lived in the area for some time, hearing their side of the story, finding out what it felt like to see the whole tone and feel of their neighborhood change.

Some possible film excerpts and Israeli film locations relevant to this story:

• Bar Ilan Street: the Yitzhak Levy compromise agreement
• Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin as a milestone in the dispute
• Graffiti on the walls at Bar Ilan University
• Demonstrations throughout the years with orthodox youth groups
• Vandalism to synagogues and other graffiti, including Ateret Kochanim Yeshiva

Israeli Film Production Company

Biblical Productions provide international production crews with the local and industry ‘know how’ to operate effectively in Israel. If you have any production needs for future films in Israel, I hope you will get in touch so that I can provide you with a great service. For more information on Biblical Productions or Sharon Schaveet, Producer and expert in production services in Israel see: www.biblicalproductions.com

‘Biblical Productions: The number once choice for production crews in Israel.’

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